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Jewish Food Studies

by Lisa Schiffman

"Tell me what you eat, and I shall tell you what you are," said 18th century writer Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savin. In a broader context, every cuisine tells a story. By examining social, economic and geographical factors underlying the growth, preparation and consumption of food, Jewish food historians and contemporary cookbook authors attempt to answer questions about Jewish society.

Food history represents part of the burgeoning new area of Jewish cultural studies, which also includes study of the Jewish Catskills. Part travelogue, part historical text, cookbooks today contain a lot more than recipes. Writers such as Caludia Roden and Gil Marks have written authoritative volumes on the evolution of Jewish cuisine, from biblical times up until the present. In her best-selling book and PBS show, Jewish Cooking in America, cookbook author Joan Nathan travels across the American landscape, chronicling individual cooks in their home environments.

Calling herself a 'cultural ethnographer,' Eve Jochnowitz says she looks at what people eat and how they feel about what they eat as a science of human behavior. Jochnowitz, who teaches 'The Jewish Cookbook as Textbook' at the Upper West Side Jewish Community Center, uses the traditional mainstay of the Jewish kitchen - the cookbook - as a guide to gain insight about the era in which they were published, their authors and intended audience. "You can see what assumptions are being made," she said. "Does the writer assume the reader is keeping kosher? What are the temperature settings and how long are recipes supposed to take to cook? Are there rare or unusual ingredients?" Jochnowitz asks. From such inquiries, she asserts, one can gauge information such as the affluence of the communities the cookbooks were intended for. "I have been studying food all my life. I felt a burning desire and curiosity to learn more about food," said Jochnowitz, a one-time chef who is now a Ph.D. candidate at New York University's Performance Study Department.

Old cookbooks oftentimes reveal the level of assimilation of their teachers. For instance, a cookbook from the 1890s introduces its Jewish readers to Christian holidays in a section entitled 'Easter Dinner.'

Hunger was the driving force behind the mass migrations of three immigrant groups, Italian, Irish, and Jewish in the period between 1820 to 1920 says Hasia Diner in her new book Hungering for America: Italian, Irish, and Jewish Foodways in The Age of Migration. Diner, a professor of American Jewish history at New York University, contends that while political and economic upheaval and religious persecution fueled peoples' resolve to leave their native lands, chronic food deprivation and the promise of American plenty lead people to search for a better life.

"People are more interested in the aesthetics and the creation of cuisine. I am more interested in social history and the way food is a window in understanding how people lived," says Diner. Through meticulous documentation of memoirs and contemporary reports, Diner shows the role of food in shaping Jewish identity, both before and after immigration to America.

For the 2.5 million Eastern European Jews who arrived in America, the majority after 1870, Diner says, food preparation and consumption was central to their culture. Sanctified by Talmudic and biblical law, Jews venerated food and its importance in life-cycle events, religious holidays and the Sabbath, the center of the Jewish week. The Sabbath meal stood apart from the rest of the week, evoking vivid recollections of chicken soup, roasted meat, gefilte fish and cholent (a mixture of beans, meats, and potatoes that was simmered slowly in communal ovens.)

Every holiday had its own special food: matzo for Passover, hamentashen for Purim, latkes for Hannukah. Yet many Jews lived a marginal existence, often subsisting on a meager diet of bread or potatoes, with meat a rarity.

The Jewish dietary laws, Kashrut, which proscribed what foods Jews could eat and what was forbidden, set Jews apart from other immigrant groups. Those Jews who were able to immigrate, Diner says, were poor but not from the bottom rung of the economic scale, and generally less observant. Confronted by the abundance, variety, and availability of new foods, their attachment to old traditions and the laws of Kashrut was seriously challenged.

Assimilation into mainstream American society often meant loosening the restraints of kashrut observance. While they tasted new foods and experienced American culture, however, their traditional foods anchored them to their Jewish roots. Whereas social historians such as a Hasia Diner look at food to understand cultural identity, others are motivated by a sense of nostalgia and a desire to record and preserve ethnic cuisine for future generations. Ruth Abusch Magder, an emerging food historian, has studied the 19th century German-Jewish cuisine of her ancestors as a means of keeping alive the traditions of her mother's family, most of whom perished in the Holocaust.

Memories of his Lithuanian bubbe (grandmother) and other female relatives inspired Robert Sternberg, a rabbi and a gourmet cook to write Yiddish Cooking in America. Written in their honor, and to document the cuisine of a largely vanished culture, Sternberg authenticates traditional Eastern European recipes, adapting them to fit the modern kitchen.

Everything he learned, Sternberg says, came from watching his bubbe in the kitchen. In one episode, he tells of asking his bubbe to teach him how to make lokshen (noodles). "What are you - a meshuggeneh (a nut)?" she replies. "Nobody but alteh bobbehs (old grannies) makes lokshen." Nevertheless, she shows him how, kneading then rolling the dough out with a broomstick, then chopping it into lokshen with a hockmesser (a handleless cleaver-like knife). Afterwards, the lokshen was left to dry on top of floured white bed sheets on the bed because there was no room to spread it on the kitchen table. Sternberg explains how religious observance, geography and societal influences shaped the development of Eastern European cuisine. Cholent, for example, a slowly-cooked stew consisting of meat, vegetables and beans and prepared before the Sabbath, complied with prohibitions against cooking on the Sabbath. Jews also adapted native dishes such as Hungarian goulash by using ingredients to make them kosher.

Regional cuisine evolved featuring an area's available produce and seasonings. Spices such as dill and sorrel, Sternberg says, were favored by Polish and Lithuanian Jews, who also made the best potato kugels. Black bread, bialys, bagels, and borscht came from the Ukraine. Hungarian and Romanian Jews preferred their gefilte fish sweetened with sugar. United by a common language, Yiddish, religion and culture, Jewish migration within these regions is reflected by the numerous names for stuffed cabbage. Whether one called then 'prakkes,' 'holishkes' or 'golobtzes' depended on what part of Eastern Europe you hailed from.

Sprinkled throughout the book are informative and interesting anecdotes. Bagels, for instance, which were brought to America by Yiddish-speaking immigrants from Eastern Europe, were originally considered to be 'mazeldik' or full of good luck because of their round form, which symbolized the eternal cycle of life, and were often used as amulets to ward off the evil eye.

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